Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth have created something truly special in their illustrated book, Sex is a Funny Word. Geared toward children ages 7 to 10, the book delves into the topics of “bodies, feelings, and YOU.” Four narrators of varying ages, genders and ethnicities lead the reader on an exploration through difficult topics including sex, bodies, touch, and relationships. They first explain that sex is a word with many meanings, but we usually mean one of three things:
1. Sex is something that people can do to feel good in their bodies, and also to feel close to another person. (Grown-ups call this “having sex”)
2. Sex is one way grown-ups make babies. (also called reproduction)
3. Sex is a word used to describe our bodies. (Like male, female and the rest of us).
The idea of “the rest of us” is a recurring theme throughout the text. The book’s images depict people of all colors and abilities and gender identities. Zai, one of the four narrators, does not identify with either traditional gender. There is a simple and beautiful section titled “What We Call Ourselves” that shifts the framing of gender from one based in the perception of others, “our outside, our cover, and who they think we are,” to that of a personal truth, “…who we think we are.”
Sex is a Funny Word creates space for trans and queer people who are so often silenced in conversations around sex and sexuality. When explaining parts of the body, the book never assigns sex organs to a gender. Instead, the book uses language like, “Some bodies have breasts, and some don’t. If a body is going to grow breasts, they usually start to grow during puberty.” The authors’ use of non-binary language when talking about sex and gender is a clear challenge to society’s heavily gendered sexual education. Adult readers wishing for ways to broaden their children’s concept of sex and gender will find this non-gendered perspective refreshing.
All aspects of sex, bodies and relationships are explained in positive, self-loving language without shame. For example, the book refers to “private parts” as “middle parts” (in the middle of our bodies), explaining that, “any part of your body can be private. Just because we choose to keep our middle parts private and covered most of the time doesn’t mean they are bad. Our middle parts are beautiful, after all, they are parts of our bodies.” Whereas traditional sexual education often promotes self-policing in order to appear “normal,” this body positive approach opens the door for young people to approach the sexual aspect of their lives with wonder, curiosity and safety.
Each chapter ends with statements that connect to each of the book’s core values: respect, trust, joy and justice. The loveable narrators make the book’s values come alive. Cooper explains that respect means thinking of the feelings and values of others, as well as the idea that we should respect others and expect others to respect us. Zai explains that trust means that you feel safe and comfortable with another person. He also explains that it’s possible to trust yourself, reminding us that nobody knows more about you than you do. Mimi shares that joy is a big, beautiful happy feeling, and that part of sex is feeling joy and pleasure. Finally, Omar explains that justice is “like fairness, only bigger.” He reminds us of our rights, explaining, “Each of us gets to say who we are and choose who we want to be in a relationship with.”
Sex is a Funny Word is a liberating text and educational tool. Its troop of gender-bender defenders support the agency and safety of children as they explore a topic that has for so long been shrouded in silence and shame. Silverberg and Smyth have created a relatable story that arms young people (and their grown-ups!) with the language to reflect on their own identities and bodies through a social justice lens. The book leaves readers believing in Omar’s wisdom, that “every person, and every body, matters.”
Emma Price is an educator who teaches fourth grade at the Rodeph Sholom School. She is passionate about seeking educational equity and liberation for everyone.